This article provides data on the volume of imports of perishable goods into the UK from the EU. The issue is a hot topic at the moment in terms of imports into and exports out of the UK and the impact new customs clearance systems might have on how quickly such goods might be cleared. There is also an important side issue: where are they cleared?
Absent from any of the discussions so far is volumes i.e. how many truck loads of produce are we talking about? The trade database Eurostat provides comprehensive data on UK imports and exports which originate in the first instance from HMRC and from this, very conservative estimates on the numbers of truck movements can be arrived at.
The Scale of the Problem
John Keefe, Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs, has stated that “Eurotunnel transports 1.6 million trucks, carrying £120bn worth of goods across the Channel each year,” (The Guardian 27th May 2018)
Working on a 24/7/365 operation the 1.6 million trucks is the equivalent of 4383 per day. Putting it another way, from the Calais end 90 trucks per hour, ditto the Kent/Ashford end. Other UK ports operate RO-RO (roll-on/roll-off) which often just involve trailers only; Dover, Harwich, Newhaven and Southampton being the most notable.
In broad terms one can classify goods coming into (and going out of) the UK in two ways: perishable and non-perishable. The former is mostly food. Perishables include, cut flowers, strawberries, other fresh fruit, lettuces and so forth. Trucks carrying perishables will usually have some form of independently driven refrigeration system. This is a consideration if the truck has to remain stationary for some time.
The EC operates a publicly accessible database called Eurostat. The key part of Eurostat is the trade statistics which are based on a document called the Combined Nomenclature (CN) which classifies products using a CN number and a brief description. The database can be searched using CN codes/summary description. Exports and imports from (for example) the UK to the EU can be extracted in terms of their value (Euros) and volume (usually in 100s of kg). The data is available both yearly and monthly. The latter is useful when examining seasonal flows of goods.
What follows considers some popular perishable products imported into the UK. The 40 tonne truck equivalent has been selected to give a feel for the numbers of truck movements. In the case of products such as cut flowers these are likely to be moved in trucks that may have the volume of a 40 tonner but are carrying much less weight. Thus the numbers could be considered a “best case” situation – the reality is likely to be different – probably not by a 50% margin but possibly by an additional 20% in terms of the numbers of trucks needed to move produce. All data blow is for 2017. To arrive at the “40 tonne equiv” divide the weight column by 40.
|UK Imports from EU||Value Euro Millions||Weight (Tonnes thousands)||40 Tonne Truck Equiv|
|Cauliflowers & Broccoli||136||118||2953|
In March 2017 more than 700 40 tonne trucks came into the UK with cucumbers, with lettuce 367 trucks (April 2017), tomatoes, 769 trucks (June 2017) and table grapes 429 trucks (Sept 2017). Sweet peppers are another product that not only needs 100s of trucks (411 trucks, March 2017) but which is more or less steady throughout the year.
In some cases seasonal effects come into play. Cauliflower and broccoli, 460 trucks (March 2017), falling to 10 in October 2017 and rising to 484 by December the same year. Strawberries show a similar pattern (277 trucks April 2017 – 30 in August).
PWR looked at 16 product categories, these produced in the range 2500 – 3300 truck equivalent movements into the UK per month – every month. Note that this is a best case scenario. If the situation is 20% worse (see the comments on cut flowers) this looks more like 3000 – 4000. Furthermore, the analysis covered a relatively small number of well known and popular products. How many inward truck movements cover cherries, apricots, kiwi fruits, lemons, limes, nectarines, plums. The list is very long. 1000 additional trucks per month?
By estimating 4000 40T movements per month and working on the basis of 24/7/365 this gives circa 135 trucks that need to be processed per day (135 going in and 135 going out). Many of the trucks going out from the UK are likely to be empty given that the UK is a net importer of agricultural produce by a long way, and UK manufacturing is not quite what it used to be (irony alert).
Much has been written with regards to exports and imports of other “just-in-time” (JIT) products for cars and such like. Would fresh goods be given priority in terms of processing (at the EU end – why would they do that?). What about empty trucks at the UK end? Would these be processed like a full truck – probably not – but they would still need to be processed.
A Warning From History?
Before single market rules came into play in the 1990s, French customs used to play a game with the Spanish. Each year Spanish fresh produce such as strawberries would flow with no problem across the Spanish/French border up to the point when the French strawberry crop (and other crops) kicked in. At that point admin became more “rigorous” and queues of trucks at locations such as La Junquera became epic in length.
UK Exports of Perishables
In terms of agriculture, UK exports to the EU can best be described as noise. Examples include potatoes, where the UK imports (2017) were 100k tonnes, and UK exports, 16k tonnes; tomatoes, UK imports 322k tonnes, UK exports 1k tonnes. Cut flowers look quite good by comparison (UK imports 30k tonnes, UK exports 17k tonnes – 2017). Doubtless there are some exceptions – key point – there certainly are exceptions. I know one farmer that makes a very good business exporting beef to Italy from cattle that have been “finished” on grass in the UK. One wonders how long that trade will last on leaving the EU. Will he and others that have found interesting niche markets become collateral damage on the alter of Tory party (dis)unity?
For the avoidance of doubt on the matter of collateral damage to UK citizens, readers might be interested in an account of a meeting between May and one of her constituents who was a Tory voter.
If this is the attitude of May towards her own Tory constituents (the very people that vote for her as an MP) her attitudes towards non-constituents and non-Tory voters may be even less sympathetic (is that possible?).
It would of course be desirable if the UK was able to produce more food itself. But this needs people to collect and pick produce. Prior to engineering Brexit, the Tories with May as Home Secretary, made sure that there would be a lack of people to pick UK grown agricultural products. This recent article in the Guardian covers the problem, here.
In summary, May decided in 2013 to end the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme which had been running since just after WW2 and was seen as reasonably effective. The Tories then put on flip-flops: in early 2017 it told a Defra committee that foreign labour shortage reports were anecdotal. But by February 2018 Gove told an NFU conference a scheme would be announced “shortly”. A pretty pathetic response, but typical from a government filled with know-nothings and never-were’s.
There are hundreds of truck movements per day, every day into the UK that carry perishable goods from the EU. These will compete for timely processing with other goods like JIT products destined for UK manufacturing sites, which, whilst not perishable, also need timely delivery.
Tories have claimed that the current “fuss” is reminiscent of the 1st January 2000 ‘milennium bug’ when it was claimed that many computer systems would fail due to the date change (1999 to 2000). Nothing happened. Nevertheless, if the worst happens, they are proposing (as a stop-gap solution?) to turn the M20 in Kent into a truck park. Doubtless the good people of Kent are looking forward to this event – after all that is what motorways are for – to be used as truck parks.
Continuing to shoot themselves in the foot, the Tories and May have ensured that the UK is poorly prepared to grow and pick its own food having cancelled a scheme for foreign workers that was seen to work quite well.
Maybe everything will be OK after all, since it will be UK customs officials (i.e. 3rd country customs officials) based in Calais (and other locations) clearing UK-bound goods. Really? The EU will allow non-EU customs officials to clear goods on their territory?
Finishing where we started: at Eurotunnel – if the French don’t play ball, that means that 90 trucks/hour need to be cleared at the UK end. This begs a practical question: where is the space?. Next time you are transiting Eurotunnel at Ashford, you will notice that the site is constrained by hills on one side and railways, motorways and housing estates on the other. There is no space for customs clearance at the UK end.
We are where we are due to decisions made by clueless Tory politicians who placed personal and party interest before national interest. They continue to do this. The end point could be shortages in the shops of some of the goods mentioned in article.
In this event, the ones to blame are the Tories and not the EU.